Whether you want to test an app you hacked together over the weekend or are about to launch a VC-backed startup, you first need a few brave souls willing to try your buggy, unfinished product.
Turning over your baby to the unwashed masses can be frightening. However, it’s a crucial first step to finding and learning about your future customers. You’ll learn more from the first five strangers who use your product than from months of internal testing. The most honest (and useful) feedback you can get is from people you don’t know.
Here’s how to find them.
1. Paid Advertising
At 11+ years old, AdWords is the grizzled veteran of internet marketing. While not as cheap as it once was, Google’s search advertising platform remains one of the best sources of targeted, trackable traffic.
Use Google’s Keyword Tool to find relevant, specific keywords to target. Don’t worry about low search volumes, just focus on relevance. During your beta, finding the right users is more important than finding lots of users. Plus, long-tail keywords are typically cheaper.
Products that perform best on AdWords already have existing search traffic. If your product is creating a new category, which doesn’t have any demand yet, find users searching for solutions to the problem you can solve.
If your product is best suited to a particular demographic or psychographic group, Facebook ads may work well.
You can target users by location, demographics, and interests to reach as specific of a group as necessary. Facebook is great for reaching customer segments like college students who love knitting or middle aged women who surf.
Just like with AdWords, be specific in your targeting, even if it narrows your potential reach. A small, but highly targeted, audience will lead to higher-quality leads for less money.
The ads themselves should use eye-catching images or pictures of faces, particularly faces resembling your target audience. The text of the ad should draw the user in further but still leave him wanting to know more. Make sure to tag your links so that you can measure which audiences and images work best.
StumbleUpon Paid Discovery
You probably wouldn’t expect StumbleUpon ads to be very effective at signing up users since most Stumblers are looking for eye-catching photos, funny videos, or interesting articles. I used to think the same thing.
Then I read a case study detailing how hypetree, a music discovery tool, used StumbleUpon ads to attract 6,000 signups for $0.03 each in one week. Three cents!
Clearly, the right product can go viral on StumbleUpon. You may want to test this channel if your startup targets 18-34 year olds (the bulk of the StumbleUpon audience) and is entertaining.
Hypetree did well partially because a music app is fun and sharable. Startups outside of the entertainment industry could have stumbling potential if they have entertaining content, like a demo video or infographic, that users would want to share.
Our last advertising suggestion is the often-overlooked Reddit ad platform. Reddit ads work well when targeting a tech-savvy audience that’s willing to try new stuff.
The most important tip for advertising on Reddit is to not treat it like a direct response ad. Redditors do not like to be sold to. Instead, show them what you’ve made and invite their feedback. Redditors are more than happy to share feedback, however snarky it may be.
Ads on Reddit function just like regular posts, except that they have a more prominent placement on the page. Since ads are just like posts, Redditors can leave comments and have discussions. Your ad’s comment thread is a great way to get feedback and engage with users. If you don’t have a thick skin for pseudonymous internet comments, Reddit ads may not be for you.
Gabriel Weinberg wrote a great analysis of his success with Reddit ads for Duck Duck Go, a privacy-first search engine.
Forum postings can be a great way to get your product in front of large groups of people with similar interests. For example, if you’re targeting internet marketers, share your new tool on the Product Reviews section of WarriorForum. If your startup can help moms save money, post it in the Frugal Mom Forums.
Remember that forum users will be much more receptive to your post if you’re already an active member of their community. If you joined just to post something self-promotional (even if it could benefit the community), you won’t get a very warm reception. However, if you’ve contributed to previous threads, users will be more receptive to your message.
You can find high-traffic forums for any audience or niche. Reddit, while not strictly a forum, does have subreddits (categories) for thousands of topics. Hacker News, run by startup incubator Y Combinator, is a great place for any tech company to share their latest innovation.
The best option for feedback from the tech community is Hacker News. A popular “Show HN” thread can send your site a flood of traffic and garner dozens of comments. Showing your latest project to Hacker News is a great way to get feedback from some of the smartest and most influential members of the tech community.
For an example of a great Show HN post, see “My 4-hour project, already profitable” where Loren Burton outlines how he built a website selling “I Survived Snowpocalypse” t-shirts that was profitable four minutes after launching.
His post was extremely popular: 313 points and 141 comments. What can we learn from its success?
First, great headlines attract clicks. His headline drew users in by demonstrating that he was making money off of minimal effort. The thread wouldn’t have been nearly as popular with a generic title like “New t-shirt website.”
Second, the initial post includes details on where the idea came from, how he built the site, and where he found his customers. Hacker News readers love to learn, and being transparent with real data is the best way to teach them by example.
Third, Loren was active in the thread. He left plenty of additional comments (18 on the first page alone), which provided more information and answered people’s questions.
When writing a Show HN post, make sure to craft an eye-catching (but not over the top) headline, to provide numbers about the project or startup, and to respond to comments in the thread.
If you don’t have the money for the Reddit ads outlined above, simply posting to Reddit can be an alternate solution. Keep in mind that a post is different from an ad and should be even less self-promotional, unless you want flamed by Redditors. As with any forum, being an active member with lots of karma will buy you more leeway when asking for something.
Post your project to r/startups or share it in the most relevant subreddit when looking for testers and feedback. Redditors like to try out new stuff but will provide blunt feedback, especially if they think you’re trying to advertise.
3. Beta Directories and Services
Beta directories are a great place to share your startup and to recruit eager early-adopters.
Free marketplaces connecting startups and beta participants may seem ideal, but there’s a reason that they were not our first suggestion. These sites can only connect you to one type of user: curious techies.
This audience is great for products that thrive in the Silicon Valley echo chamber (Foursquare, Path) but not the right target for companies that can find better footing elsewhere (Pinterest).
Because these users are signing up for a variety of betas, they are not very loyal, so you aren’t likely to reach the most engaged users.
Depending on your target audience, you may benefit from listing your startup in a beta directory. In addition to testers, you’ll also get some SEO benefit from the links these directories provide.
In addition to directory submissions, you can also use more formal beta management services like the recently launched BetaBait, which takes a more active role in facilitating the marketplace between companies and testers.
If you need more advanced, end-to-end management with detailed feedback, you can use a full-service provider like Prefinery, uTest, or Centercode. These systems are more advanced than most early stage startups will need.
4. Startup Directories
Once you’ve officially launched, you can add your company to startup directories that regularly publish information about and reviews of the newest startups. These sites are followed by the early adopters on the cutting edge of technology who want to know what the new new thing is.
Start with these sites:
- Killer Startups
- Amazing Startups
5. Coming Soon Pages
Now you have a laundry list of ways to find beta testers. Is your product ready?
If not, you can still amass an army of potential users in preparation for a big launch or, in true lean startup fashion, gauge interest in an idea before building it.
A great coming soon page can help you easily sign up future beta testers. Don’t worry, these aren’t the blinking construction sign gifs of yore. The new generation of launch pages collect email addresses, incentive social sharing, and provide detailed analytics.
The most popular tool for creating a coming soon page is LaunchRock, which you can use to generate a custom page on your own domain in minutes.
Now you know where to find beta testers, how to recruit them, and, if you’re not ready for the spotlight yet, how to collect their info with a coming soon page.
All that’s left is to squash a few more bugs and move your product out of alpha. You do have a product already, right? Good. If not, time to start building.